My wife and I were blessed to be part of a very special wedding yesterday. Among many other memorable elements of the occasion, the New Testament text that our friends chose stood out:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:1-4, TNIV)
As it happens, Katie and I had picked the same text (plus vv. 5-11) for our own wedding. So hearing it again in this context inspired some happy memories.
But as it also happens, I had already decided to use the same text for devotions to start class this morning: in our Christianity and Western Culture 1st-year survey course, I’m lecturing today on the Catholic Reformation and the Wars of Religion.
To say the least, the contexts make for very different reflections on the same four verses…
In the context of a wedding, Phi 2:1-4 is less a piece of advice to a newly married couple than a reminder of God’s grace. As the officiating pastor said Saturday in his homily, Paul’s words sound almost impossible — even for just two people who love each other deeply — to live up to. Sure, I aspire to act in humility, valuing my wife (and now children) above myself, looking to their interests above my own.
And yet… the union of two people in marriage does model —however imperfectly — the kind of unity that Paul wishes for the Philippian church. With Christ at the center, two somehow become one.
And if that seems unlikely…
Sitting there listening to the homily, my mind drifted back through the seemingly random succession of events that led to the moment when I stood with my soon-to-be wife listening to Philippians 2, about to speak the vows that would join our lives together:
If I hadn’t changed my major to history in college, or decided to become a professor, or opted for European history as my major field, or heard about a job at Bethel…
And if I hadn’t replaced a Europeanist who specialized in Reformation history, and so needed to prepare to teach on a topic about which I had no prior expertise…
If I hadn’t then suggested that topic for my first attempt at leading an adult Sunday School course, one that a lovely young graduate student from Iowa happened to attend while living with her aunt and uncle — who had helped arrange the course…
And a thousand more small miracles led up to our wedding day, about eighteen months after I started teaching that adult Sunday School course. A course that ended — as my lecture tomorrow will end — with me discussing the tearing asunder of the Body of Christ in the 16th century, and the continuing fragmentation of the Church to this day.
So in the context of a church history lecture, Phi 2:1-4 is bittersweet, at best. At some level, I do believe that there is some unity of mind and spirit running throughout the Body of Christ — if the gates of death will not overcome the Church, then intra- and interdenominational bickering surely won’t either. But I can’t imagine that an atomized church has made Paul’s joy complete. Or that this is what Jesus had in mind when prayed to his Father that his disciples “may be one… just as you are in me and I am in you.”
And if we’re not one, what do we do with the next verse in John 17: “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”? We can argue over the right set of beliefs — all the while making it harder and harder to inspire in others the one belief that matters most.
In the end, I came away from the wedding a bit more optimistic than usual about teaching on the disunity of the post-Reformation Church. See, both the bride and groom on Saturday had experienced the pain of watching their parents divorce. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for a bride to walk down the aisle with her mother on her left arm and her father on her right — knowing that they can barely stand to talk to each other, that they might never see each other again now that their only daughter is wed. And yet, that walk ended with her in the embrace of her new husband, in the hope that this union would last.
May it be so for the Church, never free of its history but not bound by it either. Knowing how badly we’ve done so far in following Paul’s advice, may we yet be united with Christ, one in spirit and of one mind.